Zweig: Fund Flow Lessons Are Complicated

About $66 billion has flowed into stock funds and exchange-traded funds this year, leading some to say that it’s a contrarian sign to sell stocks. But on The Wall Street Journal’s Total Return blog, Jason Zweig says it’s more complicated than that.

“After all, $66 billion is less than 1% of total assets at stock funds and ETFs,” writes Zweig. “A 1% shift in one month is interesting, and it could turn out to be the beginning of a significant trend. But moves on that scale are hardly unusual. It’s one month’s data, and it’s a blip. Even ‘blip’ might be too strong a word. Compared to the more than $7 trillion in total stock-fund assets, a $55 billion shift qualifies more as a blipette or blipini.”

Zweig also notes that about half of that $66 billion has gone into international and emerging market funds, “so investors have hardly fallen back in love with U.S. stocks alone.” And he says that, while the idea that individual investor flows are a good contrarian indicator is often right, it’s not always the case. The 1950s was one of the best decades ever for stocks, yet individual investors yanked more money from the market than they put into it in almost every month of the decade, Zweig says. And, of course, the current bull market has occurred without new net inflows from individuals.

Individuals aren’t the only investors out there, Zweig notes. He says that institutions like pension plans (the “smart money”), have been helping push the market higher too. “So yes: The so-called dumb money is back,” he says. “But so is the so-called smart money. If individual investors` are wrong about stocks this time, they will have plenty of company.”